Najeem Abubakar argued—and won—a case that teachers and school staff should be legally allowed to search students’ cell phones, despite claims of privacy violations.
The Co-op High School senior won his hypothetical case at the National Moot Court Competition in Washington D.C. in late March, after months of intensive legal coaching from students at Yale Law School.
He is one of 25 students at his school participating in the Marshall-Brennan Project, in which law students teach high school students to understand and protect their constitutional rights.
In the hypothetical case—Marshall Brennan v. Capital City School District—a school security guard looked through a student’s bag and then her cell phone, suspecting her of possessing drugs. He found confidential medical information by opening an app on the phone. The student had taken the school to court and lost.
Abubakar represented the school on the student’s appeal. Yale Law students Adam Saltzman and Michael Zucker had been working with the group since January, pulling similar real state cases for Co-op kids to review and draw from to build their cases.
Co-op constitutional law teacher John Laub—who supervised the project—said the law students were tough with their high-school novices. At first there was a bit of “push back” against their strict methods, but ultimately the two groups got into a rhythm.
In his three years at the school, Laub said, he has seen a major difference in his students before and after participating in the Marshall-Brennan Project. “The confidence they get to be able to debate and dig into the law” makes a big “difference in their critical thinking and ability to attack different types of work,” he said.
A qualifying debate at Yale Law School narrowed the pool of competitors to six students—three from Co-op and three from Hillhouse High School—who headed to D.C. the last weekend in March. Abubakar studied every free minute he had—on the train and in his hotel room the night before the moot trial competition.
He is the third Co-op senior in a row to win the annual national competition. He said he felt pressure to keep up the record. But he also got to know other students who were all tackling the same project and was able to share his ideas with them.
Although Abubakar was nervous at the start of the debate, he said he realized “when you get into the formula that your Yale teachers beat into you…you start to relax and you start to understand that you have the confidence” needed to succeed.
By the end of the case, Abubakar said, he had immersed himself in his argument that schools should be allowed to search students’ phones. When asked whether he actually agreed with the reasoning, he said, “I don’t know.”
Part of his preparation included talking with his opponents and understanding the other side, in order to strengthen his points. And certain parts of the argument he developed were difficult to rationalize, Abubakar said, clashing with his personal opinions.
He did not think the school security officer had reasonable suspicion to search the student’s phone, he said. He also was put off by the fact that the officer violated the student’s privacy by searching an app that contained her medical information. But he learned that the law can be “very ambiguous” in that way.
“I wish I could do it again,” he said. But he graduates this year. Abubakar has been accepted to a number of universities around the country, having applied to study general education in the social sciences. He is still interested in politics and law as well as creative writing and medicine.